Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tree Planter Training 18 - Maximizing Productivity

Although this blog is predominantly focused on my music and DJ’ing career, I also want to share some information about my other career:  Canadian Reforestation.

The information in this post is part of a training series from the website.  More information can be found at this link:

I’ll put the text and audio download link from this training module below, but let’s start with the YouTube video for the module:

Section 18 - “Maximizing Productivity”

In this section, we'll give you some tips to maximize your productivity on the blocks.  Of course, you shouldn't worry about productivity and hitting big numbers until you get the basics down, namely planting acceptable quality and making it home safely for dinner each night.  We'll talk about efficient planting techniques, and efficient work strategies.  We'll also talk about how to stay organized, and how to stay focused.  In the end, it'll mean more money in the bank for you.

Maintaining a high level of Health and Safety is a requirement of good productivity.  If you're injured or sick, your productivity will decrease.  You might even miss some days of work, which cuts into your paycheque and leaves your crew short a planter.  Eat well, sleep well, and practice techniques that minimize the chance of musculoskeletal injuries.  Wear and use the right gear.  Understand typical planting risks and hazards and how to avoid them.  Remember that you have a legal responsibility to practice reasonably safe behavior.

While it's tempting to try to compete in productivity with the experienced planters, remember that they've already mastered their quality and know how to keep themselves and those around them safe.  Once you become competent in terms of safety and quality, productivity will start to rise naturally, and your foreman will feel comfortable with giving you tips to reach higher daily numbers.

Staying Organized

Never underestimate the effect that being organized can have on your productivity and earnings.  Don't be lazy - be organized.  As a planter, making sure you're informed and ready to go at the beginning of each day makes a big difference to how productive you are.

Here are some helpful ways to stay on top of your organization:
- Remember this phrase:  "Boots, bags, shovel, water, lunch."  Every morning, before you get into the truck, do a visual inspection to make sure you have all five of these items.
- Always fill your water jug at night.  It helps you avoid a lineup, and on cold camp mornings, the water lines might be frozen, so you might be out of luck.
- Repair or replace any worn or torn gear as soon as you notice it.  Don't wait until the end of the shift to do something that you could do this evening.
- Know the weather forecast and potential site conditions for the next day, so you can organize any clothing or special gear in the evening.  Don't leave it for morning.
- Know the contract specs.  If you don't, or if you forget, ask your foreman.
- Know what to do in an emergency.  Run through scenarios in your head.  Know where to find emergency contact information, and how to work things like VHF radios and satellite phones.  Always know what radio channel to use to call for help.  Assume that your foreman, the person who is normally in charge, is the one who is hurt and unconscious.  Your foreman should verbally test you once in a while on a drive home from the block, by giving a potential disaster scenario and asking you to walk through all the steps that need to be taken in that situation.
- Keep track of your tallies every day.  Write them down in a diary along with information such as prices, block numbers, who you were working with, what the weather was like, and any other notable information that can help jog your memory about things that happened that day.

Efficient Planting Techniques

Highballers move fluidly through the block, always positioning themselves correctly to complete the next anticipated task, and seldom doing only one thing at a time.  They know how to move through the land and plant with minimal strain on their bodies, and minimal energy wasted.

Planting has many steps:  bagging up, looking for naturals, looking for a good microsite, moving to it, screefing (if needed), driving the shovel into the ground, opening the hole, inserting a seedling, closing the hole, flagging (if needed), looking for trees, and doing it all over, again and again and again.  Each of these steps takes time.  You're capable of trimming a bit of time off each of these steps, sometimes by combining a couple of tasks together.  Even just a second or two saved each time that you plant a tree adds up if you repeat something a hundred thousand times in a summer.

Here are some techniques to help you maximize your productivity:
- Always plan ahead.  Be looking for the spot for your next tree as soon as your current tree is in the ground.  Eventually, you'll get to a point where you're skilled enough to always be planning out the next two or three trees ahead of you.
- Learn to plant ambidextrously.  Sometimes, the best microsite is in a spot which is awkward to deal with in your normal planting stance, but if you're able to quickly reverse your shovel hand, you might find that spot easier to deal with.  If I had to give one single piece of planting advice to new planters, it would be to learn to plant ambi.
- Sometimes, being lazy is not a bad thing.  If you pick a microsite that's easy to plant in and still meets requirements, that's smarter than putting more effort into a more difficult microsite.  I guess that rather than saying it's good to be lazy, I should say that it's smart to be efficient.  In both situations, the goal is to conserve energy.
- Use the spacing tolerance to your advantage.  Don't aim for perfect spacing.  Aim for perfect AVERAGE spacing, but be willing to fluctuate by a foot or so to find the best spots.
- Practice movements and approaches that conserve energy.  Don't bend over twice for one tree.
- Always think of ways to multi-task, such as grabbing a seedling while you're in the process of walking to the next spot.
- Always plant the back of your piece first, but don't dead-walk in to start at the back!  Plant your way in.
- Learn about piece management techniques to make your approach to planting more efficient, and to minimize inefficient things like dead-walking.

Efficient Work Strategies

Get an early start.  Being organized and prepared really helps you.  A strong morning start is psychologically powerful.  You'll feel good about your production right from the start, instead of trying to psych yourself up to catch up to where you thought you should have been.  The afternoon heat and fatigue will slow you down, so the morning plant is really important in achieving high production.

Area planting involves the proper spacing of trees on one small portion of your assigned piece at a time.  This approach works best for fragmented pieces or blocks where there's an abundance of slash, rock outcrops, large stumps, or other obstacles, since you can choose the most efficient path from tree to tree within your small area.  Note where you are and what you have covered, then, after you've planted that area, mentally mark off another small patch to plant, with full coverage in mind.

Line planting is straightforward and requires less thought than area planting.  As a first-year planter, this is the approach that you should take while you're learning to plant.  It's best suited to clear ground and open areas.  Don't automatically think that because you hear vets talking about area planting, that line planting is not always efficient.  In clear, straightforward ground, line planting is usually more efficient than area planting.  Area planting really only becomes quite useful when you're on difficult blocks with lots of slash.  Of course, as a first-year planter, you'll think that all your blocks are difficult, but chances are high that you'll be working on fairly simple ground when you're a rookie.

Try to keep a steady pace.  If you take numerous very short breaks of a minute or so during the day, to allow yourself to catch your breath or take a small drink of water, it's much better than taking one extended break.  This is especially important on cold days, because moving around keeps you warm.  A long break, or eating a lot of food at once, tends to make you feel sluggish.  Many planters use their bagging-up time as their break, and may not even stop to eat, either pacing around as they grab a quick sandwich, or eating while they're bagging up.

If you're a new planter, or just new to a contract or different block, encourage prompt feedback from your foreman or checker.  The sooner you're aware of any adjustments required to meet the quality standards, the less risk there is of a significant number of planting faults, and the faster you'll be able to establish a productive planting rhythm with confidence.

Bagging up should be done efficiently, as a lot of time can be wasted here.  Save the socializing for camp.  Make sure you have the appropriate mix of species in your bag.  Eat or drink while you bag up.

Staying Focused

Some planters find that a certain relaxed mental attitude is helpful in maintaining efficiency on the job.  They see planting as a type of meditation, and they do what's called "zoning out."  Some people find that repetitive thoughts, like a song that's stuck in your head, or counting, can help you keep focused.  Other planters strive to actively maintain a strong focus on the task at hand, and try to avoid letting themselves get distracted by anything other than the trees that need to be planted.  Although you don't necessarily have to have such an intense focus, what you don't want is for your mind to wander aimlessly and have your movements follow suit.  You need to be constantly aware of your surroundings, of the other trees and obstacles around you, where you'll put your shovel next, and how to be as efficient as possible.  Ideally, you're thinking about the next spot or next few spots to be planted.  This helps you cover the ground needed, without working yourself into a corner that requires back-tracking.  Back-tracking is a waste of time.  Dead-walking is a waste of time.

Productive planters are not only moving quickly, they're also incredibly aware of their surroundings.  They make numerous decisions, in fractions of a second, to make the most of the time taken while moving between planting spots.  They use ribbon, natural boundaries, and terrain, to keep track of areas that haven't been planted yet.  They avoid areas that have already been planted.

Even the most optimistic of planters will sometimes have a bad day, where it's almost impossible to self-motivate yourself.  On a day like that, even if you don't feel like planting, you'll have to learn to force yourself to keep working.  No matter how slow you're planting, it's faster than sitting at the cache.  You may as well face the fact that no matter how miserable you are, you're going to be stuck on the block for ten hours.  You may as well make some money while you're there.


Here’s an Audio version of this material, in case you want to listen while you’re driving, running, at work, or otherwise unable to read or watch video:

Click on the down-arrow icon in the upper right corner of the SoundCloud widget to download the mp3.

Once again, for further information about this series of tree planter training information, visit:

I encourage you to share this information with anyone else who might be interested.  Thanks for your interest and support!

-          Jonathan “Scooter” Clark